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Those who make the biggest fuss about abuse at games are themselves part of the problem

by Tony Attwood

England has a long tradition of abuse.  King Henry VIII was a fan; he had a bear baiting pit built in Whitehall so he could attend.  Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed it too, and when she went around the country the locals were sure to put on a bear baiting display for her.  When Parliament voted to stop it, Her Majesty intervened and overruled the government.

Children of course have long been abused in England.  It is difficult to know how else to describe the public school tradition in this country, and indeed it wasn’t until 1833 that children were stopped from working in textile factories – but it then took another nine years before children under 10 were banned from working in mines.  Although that still left 10 year olds down the pits and it seems many collieries simply ignored the ruling by lying about the children’s age.

Then, as the country cleaned up its act a little, the public turned to other arenas, and for many centuries throwing vegetables and other items at actors on stage was a favoured approach in British theatres.  It went on well into the 20th century.

So it is no surprise that with many other outlets for abuse now closed down, footballers should now be a favoured channel for abuse, seemingly exceeding even the level of abuse dished out to politicians.  I can remember that when there was snow on the terraces in winter in the 1960s people throwing snowballs at players on the pitch, with players taking the game towards the centre of the pitch to avoid being hit.  The referees just told any player who had the temerity to complain, to get on with the game.

Abuse is, seemingly, what a fair number of English (maybe British) people have always liked to engage in, so there is no surprise that people continue to abuse footballers today – with fans generally choosing to attack the opposition, although in Arsenal’s case some “supporters” regularly turn against their own players or the club’s manager.

The arrival of social media has beyond doubt made this far far worse, and so it is seemingly with much glee that the traditional media now spends pages and hours telling us how awful the behaviour of some fans is, and how dreadful the social media is and how everything should be controlled.

That is of course what the media always does.  It deflects any attention from themselves while denying fervently that they actually affect anything.  In their own eyes they are merely reporters of what goes on – a simplistic view of reality that simply doesn’t hold water.  They influence the debate by what they choose to report and the way they choose to report it.  If (as is the case) they ignore the curious behaviour of PGMO they warp that debate by refusing to engage in it.  If they refuse to discuss the possibility that they might run more negative stories about Arsenal than any other team, they again influence the debate.

The reality is that when abusers at football matches see their antics reflected as headline news in the media, they go on doing it more and more.  This used to be the case with crowd physical violence at matches, but then the media stopped filming it, and unsurprisingly the level of crowd violence reduced.  The same would probably happen if the media chose not to report abusive behaviour by supporters.

However this is not the whole situation.  We all know that 95% of what the mainstream media reports about football is untrue – our chart of the imaginary transfer stories each summer shows that to be so.  We also know from our own analyses on this site how the mainstream reporting of matches is warped.  (See the 160 games analysis for example).  And of course the media along with fans can re-write history too (the story of 100 years in the first division gives some examples).

Arsenal fans also have a long history of attacking the club’s players – as we have reported many times even in the days of Herbert Chapman this was a problem, and he labelled them “the boo-boys”.

So we have racial and other abuse hurled at players by fans, and the media makes a big fuss, and blames everyone… except themselves.  

The media are not solely to blame, of course, but they have to take some responsibility.  The footballing media in this country could be a force for good, but they regularly publish such arrant nonsense about football, and their reporting is so obviously biased (not just in the way that they handle certain issues, but in their abject refusal to mention other topics which are of concern to some supporters) that the credibility of the media is now zero.

They are now ignored and by-passed by huge numbers of fans who have seen how removed from their world the media is.   So all the condemnations by Radio 5, the daily papers and the blogs are meaningless.  Having footballers and phone-in commentators condemning the abuse achieves nothing except the giving of more and more publicity to the abusers, who then feel more and more important (and why not – they are national news) and so they go further and further.

Abuse can be stopped, just as physical violence in grounds was stopped, but it needs the same tactics as was used to sort out physical violence.   The wholesale reporting of the events stops, while the clubs and the police move in and deal with in a much more determined way.

Clearly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube spread the problem, and the government’s approach to them is woeful. Recently YouTube revealed it has disabled 210 channels that “behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.”   So it can be done.  Our government just needs to start fining them £100,000 a day for each channel that distributes anything that is illegal under UK law.

But as long as the media keep moaning that they are just reporting a problem rather than being a part of the problem, that move against Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others won’t happen.  Which is why I continue to suggest that the media is part of the problem not part of the solution.

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